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‘Pink Flamingos,’ a landmark of shock cinema, is honored by the National Film Registry

Divine in “Pink Flamingos.” (Lawrence Irvine/New Line Cinema/Courtesy of Warner Bros.)
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correction

An earlier version of this article misquoted filmmaker John Waters. Waters said that his 1972 film “Pink Flamingos” came out around the time that porn became legal, not illegal. The article has been corrected.

The newest additions to the National Film Registry — that annual, ever-fascinating time capsule of moviedom — have just been announced.

The 25 films are chosen every year by the Library of Congress for their “cultural, historic or aesthetic” importance to the nation’s understanding of cinema. It’s a decision that weighs blockbusters on the same scale as films rich with political and social concerns: the timely and the just plain fun.

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden announced the registry’s 33rd annual slate of films on Tuesday. The selections are made in consultation with members of the National Film Preservation Board and other experts. Members of the public may also suggest films via an online submission form.

Notable among the inductees, each of which must be at least 10 years old, are some of the most iconic franchise films in recent memory.

“Star Wars Episode VI — Return of the Jedi” earned the most public votes, according to the Library of Congress, which took note of the 1983 film’s reputation among fans as “perhaps not quite up to the lofty standards of its two predecessors” but still ranking as an “unquestioned masterpiece of fantasy, adventure and wonder.” “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” — celebrating its 20th anniversary this year — shares honors with the landmark 1984 slasher “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” which spawned a sprawling cinematic universe. “Elm Street” is noteworthy not only for its enduring legacy but for establishing the production company New Line Cinema as a major Hollywood player.

Several selections can be read as reflections on the political and social upheaval of the past year, as well as a corrective for years in which inclusion and representation were less prominent concerns. Two documentaries focus on racially motivated violence.

The selection of “The Murder of Fred Hampton,” a 1971 documentary about the police- and FBI-orchestrated killing of the Illinois Black Panther Party leader, comes in the same year that a biographical drama based on Hampton’s 1969 murder, “Judas and the Black Messiah,” garnered six Oscar nominations and two wins, including one for actor Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton.

The Atlanta spa shootings in March were a galvanizing moment for members of the Asian American community — an opportunity to discuss this country’s tricky and often tenuous reckoning with race. In that light, the registry also honored “Who Killed Vincent Chin?,” a 1987 film that examines the 1982 murder of a 27-year-old Chinese American engineer by two White autoworkers in Detroit. The killers, who mistakenly believed that Chin was Japanese and saw him as representing a threat to American manufacturing, were ordered to pay a $3,000 fine but never spent a day in jail.

Then there are the movies for weirdos and outcasts.

“Stop Making Sense,” Jonathan Demme’s spirited 1984 concert documentary about art rockers the Talking Heads, was recognized, along with “Richard Pryor: Live in Concert,” a 1979 stand-up documentary spotlighting a performance by the legendarily subversive comedian. Pryor’s legacy is still being litigated today, for his often crude and boundary-pushing jokes about race and sex.

But there’s one title that really stands out among the registry’s class of 2021: “Pink Flamingos,” by film iconoclast John Waters, whose work joins the ranks of “Casablanca” and “Citizen Kane” for the first time.

Waters spoke by phone about his cult classic — notably banned upon its 1972 release by some countries for its depictions of the human anatomy in all its forms, its outré sexual acts and a climactic scene featuring the eating of, er, actual dog excrement. To Waters, the registry honor is a testament to just how unique “Pink Flamingos” remains.

“Culturally, it still lasts,” said the 75-year-old, Baltimore-born filmmaker. “It still works. Young people see it and don’t think ‘Oh, I’ve seen that before.’ So, it is a film that all angry rebels who have a sense of humor about themselves seem to embrace.”

It’s true. The film’s star, Divine, whose character competes to be the “filthiest person alive,” is one of the prototypes for modern drag and queer culture. Waters also sees his work as presaging punk culture. He says he has heard every criticism lobbed against “Flamingos” — including that its sole aim is to shock. Sure, Waters says, it does plenty of that, but that’s not why he believes it strikes a nerve.

“Shock value was something I learned in elementary school,” he says. “What it means is you do something shocking to get people’s attention, and then you make them laugh and you change their mind. That’s what I’ve been trying to do my whole life.”

Waters acknowledges that “Flamingos” was a comment on its time: “It was made right when porn became legal, so what else couldn’t you do,” he asks, rhetorically. “I can certainly understand that people hate the movie, but it is a moral movie. The villains that lose are jealous people that judge other people, and the people that win, even if they’re criminals, are proud, stick to themselves and try to live in their own filthy peace.”

For decades, Waters has built a career on the subversion of norms; he’s made bad taste palatable. The National Film Registry honor has shown him that even though society is still catching up to his vision of the world, there’s still room to be weird — and for surprises.

“ ‘Pink Flamingos’ has been “shocking people for 40-some years,” he explains. “And now the National Film Registry has finally shocked me.”

Films selected for the 2021 National Film Registry

“Ringling Brothers Parade Film” (1902)

“Jubilo” (1919)

“The Flying Ace” (1926)

“Hellbound Train” (1930)

“Flowers and Trees” (1932)

“Strangers on a Train” (1951)

“What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962)

“Evergreen” (1965)

“Requiem-29” (1970)

“The Murder of Fred Hampton” (1971)

“Pink Flamingos” (1972)

“Sounder” (1972)

“The Long Goodbye” (1973)

“Cooley High” (1975)

“Richard Pryor: Live in Concert” (1979)

“Chicana” (1979)

“The Wobblies” (1979)

“Star Wars Episode VI — Return of the Jedi” (1983)

“A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984)

“Stop Making Sense” (1984)

“Who Killed Vincent Chin?” (1987)

“The Watermelon Woman” (1996)

“Selena” (1997)

“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001)

“WALL-E” (2008)

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